Joined September 2016
  • Day19

    Across Greece to the finish!

    August 11, 2018 in Greece ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    The highways in Greece are modern and fast - being in the EU had its advantages. Gone were the narrow, winding roads with few guard rails and flocks of sheep and goats, replaced by fast four lane highways that went through the mountains instead of winding up and over them. It makes for a less interesting story, but the series of well lit 1-4km tunnels was a nice change. We made great time to Kalabaka. Switching over to the euro was nice, too: while in Albania few places took credit cards and we didn't want to get stuck with too many Lek after we left. We sort of nickel dimed our way through Girokaster so as not to have too much left over when we got to Greece.

    Kalabaka is a nice little town surrounded by mountains. The real draw of this place is a group of monasteries and convents built high atop rock pillars. In a broad sense, the geology looks similar to the southwestern United States, with mountains and sedimentary rock eroded away to form great pillars hundreds of feet high. Centuries ago, monks built monasteries atop these pillars to protect them from the Ottomans. Up until stairs were installed in the 1930s, the only way up were either giant ladders or hoists with nets. When you see them you can't help but wonder how they did it - getting all that brick, rock and wood up there to build these magnificent structures must have been a monumental task.

    The largest monestary is called Meterora, and it's definitely worth the excercise to get up there. James Bond fans will recognize Meteora for the cliff climbing, bad guy battling scene near the end of For Your Eyes Only. Once inside there are chapels with interesting but seriously violent artwork, wine making areas, terraces and a room filled with skulls, presumably from the monks that have lived there in the past.

    Another great way to see Meteora is from a distance, at sunset. Hundreds of people drove up the mountain, parked alongside the road and climbed out onto the rocks to see it. The color of the sky, surrounding mountains and people climbing to precipitous perches to witness it was quite a sight. Given the tranquility of the scene, the lack of guard rails and, in many places sheer cliffs, everyone was very polite and considerate.

    The next day we headed out for our final destination, Thessaloniki, Greece, where the rally would end and a big celebration was in store.

    We drive the first 2 hours, Vlora the Volvo loving the smooth highway she was designed for. There were three routes we could have taken and we chose the slightly longer, seaside route. We took a break on the drive for a beach side lunch and a nice little restaurant, with the Agean sea on one side and Mount Olympus on the other.

    With all it's beauty and culture, Greece is kind of funny in that they are receipt happy. Dodging taxes used to be the national sport here, but with recent austerity measures imposed by the EU they have employed a small army of roving tax inspectors that can strike at any time. If you got to a cafe and order a second drink, they don't add it to your tab - they give you another receipt for that round. When you go to pay, oftern you wind up with a pile of receipts that they add up at the register. Ask a guy directions on the street he gives you a receipt. Throw crumbs to pigeons, they give you a receipt... Not really, but that's how it felt.

    All the teams met at an outdoor restaurant for our last hoorah. It was a huge tapas style meal where we drove the waiters crazy, ordering dish after dish and drink after drink. Many toasts were made and everyone got a medal for being odd enough to decide this trip would make a good vacation.

    Aravind was our leader - he founded the Travel Scientists after taking a lot of crazy road trips through Europe and beyond. Look up the next time you're bored. On this Balkan run he brought his wife Gaitre and his adorable daughter, Benita, who in her young age is already a seasoned traveler. David Hope, another staff member came along as guide, friend, fixer and occasional drinking buddy.

    There were only three teams of paying customers on this run. At first we were a little dismayed at first to learn that they were all American as we'd had so much fun making friends from all over the world on the rickshw challenge in 2016. The great thing is that although we’re all Americans, very few of us were born there. We had Fady, Raja and Christo from Lebanon, Said from Pakistan, David from Scotland, Aravind and family from India, Steve from Canada and Jared, Colton and Pamela from America.

    Raja is a doctor and we were lucky to have him along the way. At one point our leader wound up in the hospital for a morning with a bad allergic reaction, and many of of us needed advice on food poisoning along the way and Raja was glad to help.

    Fady and Pamela are semi retired and are of on adventure after adventure. They had just completed the Central Asia Rally in their souped up Lexus SUV, complete with snorkel. Last year Fady and his friends bought a boat and sailed the Atlantic.

    'The Chillers'- Raja, Said, Christopher and Jared hadn't done a trip quite like this before but sailed through it with relative ease, keeping and open mind and enjoying the culture and insanity of some of the roads. A couple of them were headed directly to Jordan after the Rally. David headed to Georgia (not US state), Aravind and family headed back to their home in Budapest and Colton and I are on a plane to Chicago.

    While a trip like this is no walk on the beach, it's not really that hard if you keep an open mind, stifle your fear a bit and relax. Anyone can do if if they want it badly enough, and we think everyone that can, should. It's a big world out there and there are just too many great things to see and experience.

    We hoped you’ve enjoyed following us in our journey and encourage everyone to push themselves a bit out of there comfort zone for a new and exciting adventure. Until next time, Steve and Colton signing off.
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  • Day18

    Hometown of a Dictator

    August 10, 2018 in Albania ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    Our last stop in Albania was the city of Gjirokaster. When I first saw it on the route it seemed odd. I'd heard about most of the other cities on the route, but not this one. It turned out to be a very good choice, as it was nothing like anything we'd seen before in this country. With the exception of Thethi, every other city was more or less 20th century in architecture and layout. Not this place. It was a well preserved ottoman era city, established in the late 1400s. The streets were made of cobblestone and were winding and steep. All the buildings seemed to be of that era, too. Our hotel sat on high ground - it was family run and had a nice out door dining area.

    The drive to Gjirokaster was a lot of fun. I was still feeling the food poisoning so Colton drove the whole way. We wound down the coast of Albania, saw some paragliders launching from atop a mountain and stopped for a break at the beach. Eventually the route turned east, into the mountains. We stopped to check out the blue eye, a famous mountain spring. Picture a river emanating from nowhere and you get the idea. It was so cool, Colton decided to leap from the obeservation deck, directly into the eye. Twice. Normally this trip was a constant game of one upmanship, but I was still feeling green so I passed.

    About an hour from our destination a storm broke out as were driving on one of those windy mountain roads. We were used to mountain driving at this point and Colton handled it with ease and I trusted his driving. It was actually kind of fun.

    Gjirokaster is the home town of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who ruled Albania for decades. While many other cities had been transformed into more Stalinist architecture during his rule, Gjirokaster went untouched. I'm guessing this is why he seemed slightly less hated here. In every gift shop we had seen along the way you could buy little statues of Skanderberg, the 15th century hero who led the rebellion against the Ottomans - he is depicted as a bearded warrior who looks like he could give William Wallace a run for his money. Here, you could also buy Hoxha statues in some places. Weird.

    Looming over the town is an old fortress dating back to the 1500s and expanded/updated in the 1830s. You can see it from most places in the city. Hoxha used part of this castle to display his military trophy collection. A great hall was lined with mostly broken artillery pieces left behind by axis forces in WW2. Outside the hall, near the edge of one of the castle walls sat the rotting shell of an American T33 fighter jet from the early 1950s. It had been forced to land in Albania. The stories of how are varied - Hoxha said Albanian jets damaged it, America says the pilot got lost and was forced to land due to weather. The pilot detained and released after several weeks but the plane was kept and put in Hoxhas trophy room.

    Gjirokaster would be our last stop in Albania, and it was a great way to end our time there. The next day we would enter Greece, where the roads are wider and the prices are higher.
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  • Day16

    Along the Albanian Riviera

    August 8, 2018 in Albania ⋅ ☀️ 32 °C

    Along the Albanian Riviera

    We’ve missed posting for a couple of days thanks to some food poisoning that slowed us down, but we’re back and ready to finish the rally strong!

    Driving along the Albanian coast is definitely worth doing, if you make it here, you’ll encounter ancient old world history, beautiful coastlines and beaches that are postcard-worthy, with the small town charm from the proud Albanian people who are so happy you are visiting their country.

    Ancient historic sites:
    We’ve explored several castles, remnants of old cities, and villages with evidence from the different periods of history as the control of this region changed. Several sites have reached the status of UNESCO designation as some of the castles and fortifications date back to the 12th century. However, the castles and structures are usually built on top of already existing foundations and loosely defined village layouts as humans have been here for thousands of years, with records of the Illyrians going back to the time of ancient Greece in the 700-1000 BC range. For us, we love trying to imagine all the things that have happened at these locations, from ancient people’s every day life, to decisive military battles, sieges and invasions which would define centuries of life afterwards. An example is an old Roman Amphitheater in Durrës, built in the year 60 AD and used for the next few hundred years for entertainment. The main entertainment was inviting about 20,000 of the towns people to cheer on as gladiators, slaves and animals would engage in a gory battles. A relief from inside the eerie chambers of the amphitheater with the depiction of a man driving a sword into another man’s back reminded us of what took place here.

    Driving up and down mountains of what many refer to as the Albanian Riviera is absolutely breathtaking and makes it a bit hard to keep your eyes on the road as you try to take in the intensely blue-hued Adriatic. For anyone that’s driven along the Amalfi Coast it Italy, the scenery must be somewhat similar. Spending nights in the beachside towns of Durrës and Vlorë, we believe it to be reminiscent of the California coast or Miami strip from the 50s and 60s. Although we didn’t experience that time, through photos and movies, it seems pretty close. The beaches are all lined with small, 2-4 star family run hotels, with a boardwalk which separates the hotels, bars and restaurants from the beaches that are lined with lounge chairs and cabanas. The less stringent rules and regulations mean that you can see and do things you don’t regularly see at beaches in the U.S. There are several BB gun kiosks where you can try your luck at hitting targets, there are people pushing around carts of burning oil so they can serve fresh donuts and people selling beers in glass bottles so you can walk up down the beach enjoying the sights, beer in hand. After all of the intense mountain driving, a couple of more relaxed nights and taking a dip in the warm Adriatic are a welcome change.

    The remnants of a dictator:
    For anyone familiar with recent Albanian history, you may be aware of the ruthless communist regime, led by Enver Hoxha, from post WWII to the early 90s. During that time, Albania was all but cut off from most of the rest of the world, as Hoxha grew more and more paranoid of an Imperialist invasion. He, among many other activities, led an effort to build bunkers across the country, we see these dotting the landscape with machine gun angles aimed toward the sea as we drive. We finally find one that’s somewhat accessible and stop by a roadside stand to enjoy some freshly picked figs and grapes, while exploring the inside of the tiny bunker. Despite the history of being ruled under a harsh dictatorship, everyone we have interacted with here is happy, eager to converse and meet with us, and goes out of their way to make sure our experience is a good one - including the man selling figs, with a smile, handshake, and adding several extra perfectly ripe figs for us to enjoy after we already paid.
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  • Day14

    The Road to Thethi

    August 6, 2018 in Albania ⋅ ☀️ 25 °C

    The road to Thethi is the price of admission. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor. If you want to experience Thethi you have to take it.

    Thethi is a village high in the mountains and not much has changed there in the last few hundred years. There is internet, electricity and proper restrooms, but everything else here is done the old way. You can see it in how the buildings are constructed and you can taste it in everything you eat and drink. The place where we stayed was hotel-like in that we had rooms with beds and bathrooms, but was like a boarding house when it came to food. Other than beer and coffee you didn't really order food and there definitely wasn't a menu. You tell them the size of your party and you get what they have. Dinner was like a mini feast, with plates of lamb parts (every cut was different), bread, Greek salad, 2 kinds of goat cheese spread and cornbread. The cornbread was exactly like we have back home. The dinner table was outside, under a wooden canopy with a mountain stream nearby.

    In the 2 hours between the drive and dinner a few of us went on a hike to a nearby waterfall. We passed a flock of sheep, tended to by a woman in traditional garb. It was a decent climb to get to the waterfall but it was worth the effort. We took a dip in the Rocky pool of water below the waterfall - it was absolutely freezing but good.

    We took a different route down and followed a small stream someone had built a long time ago to send water to a nearby farm. We passed a small bar that was really just a tiny log shack with a rough hewn deck overlooking the river. The view was fantastic. A hike like that deserved a beer so we stopped in. Colton noticed my arm was bleeding. It was a teeny cut, but it had bled over the hike to make it look worse than it was. I hadn't even noticed it. As we got ready to leave, the owner of the place noticed it and un kinked a hose and insisted on pouring rakki (moonshine) on the my arm to clean it. I pretended to lick the liquor off my arm as a complement and he passed the bottle around.

    The road: getting into Thethi is a challenge. It's paved up to the last 18km but after that it's very rough. Our car, an early 2000s Volvo wagon had been an absolute tank the whole way but this was pushing it. At the end of the pavement we were warned by a group of Italians in a land rover that our car was too wide and wouldn't make it on the narrow rock and dirt road. We knew others from our group had made it in wider cars so we ignored the advice. We had second thoughts one last time when a local guy in a old land rover drove up, took one look at our car and tried to offer us a ride. Knowing how they drive here, we preferred to be in control of the driving, even if that meant we had to go really slow, and we would average about 8-9 km/hr. Three kilometers in, we encountered a guy driving a car similar to ours who had turned back, but we were determined to make it.

    If the road to Thethi were paved, there would be a lot more accidents. It was extremely narrow and made mostly of rocks and dirt, not gravel. The roughness ensured oncoming traffic on blind corners would be slow-ish. Like the day before there were sheer cliffs at some points, so we decided to take off the seatbelts in case a quick exit was needed. When we encountered an oncomimg car at one particularly tight and and cliffy spot the passenger jumped out and guided us past the car, us inches from a cliff and a centimeter from the other car... all the while wearing cool shades with a cigarette from his mouth. Those 18km took hours but eventually we made it in.

    Later on we decided our car deserved a name since it had survived that road. It was a FWD Volvo wagon with 250K km on the clock and it hadn't signed on for this kind of treatment. Vlora seemed like a good fit since it's an Albanian name, starts with V and goes well with Vlora the Explorer.

    There is only one road to Thethi so we had to take the same way out the next day and it took hours and was hairy, but it didn't seem as bad the second time.
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  • Day13

    Entering Albania the hard way!

    August 5, 2018 in Albania ⋅ ☀️ 32 °C

    We knew we had a long day of mountain driving ahead of us, but we didn’t really have any idea what lay ahead.

    As we near the Albania/Kosovo border, we start to see several processions of cars with many of the cars prominently displaying Albanian flags and we couldn’t quite make out what they were, either funerals or weddings possibly, but either way, these people are proud Albanians - but we are still in Kosovo. Talking to a few people from the previous night, many people of Kosovo are ethnically Albanian and they like the idea of someday becoming part of Albania.

    As we enter into Albania, the nostalgia starts setting in for Steve. He came here 23 years ago with his father to work on a mineral exploration camp for a summer. As we make our way deeper into the country, the mountains become more imposing and we start to wonder if we need to go through and across them. Once we get past the northernmost town of Valbona and approach the Fierze Dam, the road becomes fairly devoid of traffic. We would find out later that there is a border crossing further to the south which had a more normal road and a more straight shot to our next destination, but where would the fun and adventure be in that?

    As we approach the Dam, we stop for a few pics and try to figure out where the road goes as all we see are towering mountains. Sure enough, there are a series of tight switchbacks that start to take us up. These switchbacks are intense, have us rising quickly at a 10 % incline, and have no guardrails. This takes the term white knuckle driving to new heights, knowing a wrong reaction to an oncoming car around a bend, could mean a 1000 foot free fall to certain death. The thought becomes more real as we continue the drive and start seeing memorial after memorial along the side of the road. In fact, there are no speed limit signs, but the full-tombstone memorials serve that purpose - for us anyways. Some of the tombstones are dedicated to multiple people, likely meaning they all sailed off the cliff in one car to meet a horrible end. As I write this, the term road might be a stretch, more like a glorified goat path, which goats still use today as if it’s meant exclusively for them. You may have seen roads like this on TV, they are carved into the side of the mountain, mostly one lane, except for slightly widened spaces to allow for oncoming traffic to pass, no guard rails, ever present signs of recent rockslides, and the occasional large stone or boulder which tumbled down to the road, and immediately alongside the edge is a steep drop of hundreds - thousands of feet, with no trees to slow down a falI. I maneuver the road carefully as I see Steve grabbing for the handle and holding his breath on occasion. I assure him that I got this, but he doesn’t seem too convinced at first. The dozens of memorials we see along the route serve as a constant reminder that this is some serious driving and we need to stay ever attentive. This would go on for 6 hours, before we finally came to the main road to Shkodër.

    We were losing light but needed a break, so we stopped in the old mining town of Fusche Arraez, this was the area Steve had worked when he was here in the 90s. The mountain in front of us and the land 20 miles to the south had once been part of a mineral exploration operation led by Steve’s father, Jim Kelly. These hills and mountains are filled with gold, copper and zinc, but unfortunately the Albanian Revolution of 1997 put an end to that operation. We wanted to stop by the area where the old camp was located, but the roads were terrible and daylight wasn’t on our side so we had to skip it.

    A couple more hours of maintain passes gets us to our destination city - Shkodër, a big shout out to the Travel Scientists for choosing such a great route and arranging a fairly high class hotel for us to recharge at.
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  • Day12

    En route to Kosovo

    August 4, 2018 in Kosovo ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Day 2 - Waking up in a beautiful mountain town in Montenegro was reminiscent of a Canadian or American mountain town. Fresh, clean alpine air, little cute cottages and villas dotting the landscape, and there is an air of peace and calm as the people all feel relaxed.

    We took a little bit of time leaving, as there is not a set time we have to get to our next destination. Oh, by the way, we should mention that we found out on day 1 that this isn’t a challenge race, where you need to be at a mandatory briefing at 7:15 every morning to get your new list of challenges, you also don’t have a cutoff time for when you need to make it to your next destination. This is called, the Great Balkan Ride, not challenge, and apparently that’s the differentiator. So to summarize, not a competition, but still an amazing adventure!

    We had decided that we wanted to check out a zip line opportunity over the Tara Canyon. We did some quick internet research to see if the place was legit as it is over 2500 feet in distance and as high as 400 feet above the canyon. We decided it looked acceptable. We arrived and it certainly was an intense zip line, not like one we’d ever seen before. For Steve, this was his first zip line so he was a bit nervous, as admittedly I was, but we decided we would regret not doing it, so we were pretty convinced. As we walked up, there was a young lady working for the company who is clearly there to convince those with any doubts. She asked what we were waiting for and we said we wanted to see it to be sure. She told us that kids and elderly folks do it all the time and they are just fine and in fact, a little girl just got done doing it right before us. So she had us, we agreed and it was up to the platform to get fitted in the harness. No turning back now! We were harnessed up and ready to go and with a push from the the crew, we went flying out over the canyon! What an exhilarating rush we experienced!

    Interesting note here, there are no forms to be signed, no instruction to be had, you simply walk up to the platform, get your harness on and away you go! When you get to the platform on the other side, a guy asks you for 20 Euro and it’s over. An absolute thrill and had the effect we were hoping for. A nice shot of adrenaline to start out the day and carry us on our drive into Kosovo.

    The drive through Montenegro into Kosovo was through beautiful mountains and valleys, but maybe we are a bit desensitized to the beauty of this by all of the breathtaking landscapes we saw on the previous day’s drive. The exit from the Montenegran border check point to the Kosovo entrance covers several miles through a mountain pass. Upon arriving in Kosovo we are told we don’t have the proper insurance and we need to go buy some at a shack down the road, 15 Euro and now we can enter the country legally.

    A long, fun, descent passing through dozens of mountain cows grazing along the switchbacks and we arrive in Peja, Kosovo. We are successful in locating our hotel quickly and it turns out we are the first team to arrive. I wait in the car, parked on the street, while Steve goes to get checked in and figure out where to park. The front desk attendant didn’t really speak English and Steve seemed to be a bit off on his pantomime game, thus leading to an impasse and with the understanding that there are “no reservation and hotel full!” Well, that’s a problem and who knows when the organizers will arrive so let’s ensure we have a room somewhere, we drive around to a couple hotels and they are full as well. But we asked at one of the hotels if they could give a recommendation and possibly call for us. Fortunately the place they called had some rooms. The bellhop was nice enough to walk us over to the hotel and see to it that we were able to check in successfully and we were satisfied. We would find out that this was a sign of more incredible warmth and hospitality the people of Kosovo would continue to display.

    Given the current political climate in the World and in the US, some places in the World aren’t as welcoming to American tourists. However, thanks to the support from the US in the recent Kosovo conflicts, the people are incredibly happy to have us here and are as accommodating as can be. Some walking through the streets to see the nightlife, drinks with our fellow travelers, and it’s time for sleep as we have a long day of treacherous mountain driving ahead of us!
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  • Day11

    Day 1 - Into the mountains

    August 3, 2018 in Montenegro ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    We left our hotel at decent time but didn't make decent time, at least not at first. The main route out of town was under construction and was entirely closed. After an hour of roads not being where they should be (according to the map) we found a way out. We passed through the same Srpska territory we'd seen on the Siege tour. We were pretty happy once we were out of there and onto the open road. Pretty early into the drive we came to a spot where a landslide had covered the road, but a temporary gravel workaround had been constructed.

    There are a lot of tunnels on the road to Montenegro, and none of them are lit. There are lights, but most of the bulbs were burned out. It took a little getting used to.

    After a while the landscape changed, and we worked our way into the Tara Canyon aka the Grand Canyon of Europe. I recently read an article that included this in the top 10 most scenic drives in the world. It was a long, winding climb over rivers and reservoirs, with plentry of tunnels and not very many guard rails. The views were amazing. It looked a lot like Colorado or Montana. There were little river rafting operations all over the place and we tried to get out on the river, but it was too late in the day - no trips started after 11 am.

    After hours of climbing we passed the tree line and the scenery changed dramatically. It went from beautiful mountain forest to something that looked like a beautifully kept front lawn draped over massive mountains. It looked like we teleported to an entirely different planet.

    We saw flocks of goats and sheep, some of which were polite enough to stay off the road. These creatures were responsible for giving the mountains that freshly mowed lawn look. The afternoon was a series of tight blind turns, again with no guard rails, and long sweeping straightaways that hug the sides of the mountains It was beautiful.

    We had skipped lunch in order to make good time, but by late afternoon we were starving. We came upon a little solitary cabin that had signs indicating it was a restaurant. It was pretty much a single room, with a little counter, a wood burning stove and a tiny kitchen. The proprietor greeted us and before we ordered anything shots of local liquor appeared. I had finished my bit of driving for the day so I partook. Colton had a taste and then I drank the rest of his, too.

    Colton asked the proprietor if there was a bathroom. No one there spoke much English - there was a small group chain smoking at the other table that might have been his family. The owner gestured towards the mountainscape visible through the window, then he gestured to the grassy plain, then to a nearby outcrop, saying something along the lines of "it is all around you". Heh. The other group got a good laugh out of that one, too.

    We asked about food options and he said "bread, cheese, meat". Colton ordered bread cheese, I ordered bread cheese meat. A few minutes later sandwiches came out. The cheese was amazing - very fresh and local, most likely from some of the cows we had heckled earlier (let he who hasn't rolled down the window and mooed at a cow cast the first stone). The ham was a really nice smoked prosciutto - given the location it had to be from nearby.

    About an hour later we made it to our stop for the night, Zabljk, Montenegro - the highest altitude city in the Balkans. I've never been to the Swiss Alps but it sure looked like I imagined it would. It reminded me a lot of a little mountain towns in Canada, in both look and feel. We skipped dinner with the group since we had such a late lunch but wound up eating late night - we actually found a place that was open for dinner after 11pm. We had roasted mushrooms, German sausage with a side of beer. On the half mile walk down the un-lit road to dinner we spotted a hedgehog and on the walk back we heard what sounded like coyotes or wolves screeching and whooping in the distance.

    Normally it can be hard to sleep well at altitudes like that, but we all slept like rocks - the drive, while beautiful, took a lot of mental energy. There was talk of an amazing zipline that was a little off our route the next day so everyone was excited to get up and hit the road early so we could get a good start on day 2.
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  • Day10

    The Great Balkan Ride begins.

    August 2, 2018 in Bosnia and Herzegovina ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Tonight is dinner and drinks with the organizers and the other teams, then a mandatory briefing at 8am in the morning for our first day with a destination to a small town in Montenegro.

    Our ride for this trip is an older Volvo V70 wagon. Not the Eastern European Lada we thought we might get stuck with, but not exactly a new car, either. It's FWD with a manual transmission, 250k km on the clock and air conditioning that works for 10 minutes every 2 hours. On the positive side, it's roomy, sturdy and has a massive range given it's large fuel tank and smallish engine. This going to be one amazing ride.Read more

  • Day10

    Sarajevo under Siege

    August 2, 2018 in Bosnia and Herzegovina ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Sarajevo is a sobering place. It was under siege for over 1400 days between 1992 and 1996 with no power, water or supplies. It's hard to understand that this would be possible until you see it - it is in a valley, surrounded on all sides by hills and mountains. The enemy had the high ground from all sides and shelled them every day and there were snipers everywhere.

    Compared to Budapest, this place has a solemness to it. Everyone over the age of 30 is old enough to remember it. Most conversations that start elsewhere seem to somehow go there.

    We did a tour of the last day for ArchDuke Ferdinand, in 1914 and his wife Sophie. It was fascinating to see the very spot where World War 1 started, yet still, the conversation went there. Our tour guide was a guy in his 30s and it was just us 3. He told us that when he was a child out playing in the street a sniper's bullet hit a wall nearby - he thinks it was aimed at him. We asked if he played outside after that he said yes, but never again in a red shirt. 50 children were hit by snipers during the siege. He told us about eating tuna donated by the U.N. - leftovers from the Vietnam war, and a cookbook that the mother's created with things like how to make 'spinach' by boiling prickly nettles.

    We did a second tour, this one about the siege. It was 4 hours long. Our guide was of similar age to the first one and the driver was in his early 60s. We saw what was left of the Olympic village (not much), and took a drive down snipers alley. There are still bullet holes everywhere. In one area, almost every building was littered with thousands of bullet holes, shrapnel and clear evidence of heavy shelling.

    There are makeshift graveyards everywhere in places graveyards normally wouldn't be. Again, the snipers made it very dangerous to even bury the dead. There are graves in most of the parks - little clusters here and there. It was really really heavy stuff. It's one thing to see pictures - it's hard not to get choked up seeing it in person. Look up what a Sarajevo rose is. We saw a few of those, too.

    Next, we headed to the old NATO airfield. NATO was bound by agreement to not let anyone leave and in exchange, the airfield was the only spot not held by the enemy. An 800 meter tunnel was dug under the runway - the only connection to the outside world and it was dug in the later part of the siege. They said it played a big role in ending it.

    On our way to go up the mountain to see the sites of the snipers nests and tanks were positioned, we passed through an area (a semi-autonomous region within the country of Bosnia) still loyal to the other side and we saw posters praising convicted war criminals proudly displayed on government buildings. We saw grafiti that was translated to 'the eagle is gone but the nest is still here'. It was chilling.

    The tour van got stopped by mini road block , and our driver dealt with the cops. We were missing a fire extinguisher, a violation. The driver gave them a bribe and we were on our way after a few minutes. We were told that after he gave them the money, he told them that his wife was sick and that wasn't very cool of them. They offered to give it back and he said "no, keep it".

    A little while later Colton asked our guide if the driver was involved in the war (the driver didn’t speak any English). Our guide said the driver was a member of a famous/infamous squad of Bosnians that had fought on the very mountain we were descending. His commanding officer was an infamous character in the siege. After years of fighting he sort of lost it and started killing Serbs inside the city (Serbs got shelled, too). Eventually the police came for him and his group of vigilantes - 12 police officers died in the raid. A second group of police eventually caught up with the commander and killed him.

    I don't think our guide usually tells that story, as he was very emotional and worked up by the end of it. The driver kept driving us down the hill, seemingly happy with how his day was going.
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  • Day8

    Budapest to Bosnia

    July 31, 2018 in Bosnia and Herzegovina ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    Colton here:

    Final Day in Budapest:
    We still had much to see. Sleep was as terrible as previous nights as the heat and humidity did not let up. The cure was a couple of double espressos and then stepping outside, the adrenaline of exploring the city kicked in again and we were ready to go.

    Shoes on the Danube:

    Thanks to the Global ERG’s “Ask me About” at the Summer Social, I had a conversation with Matt Feldman about our trip and upon hearing where we were headed, he told me “Shoes on the Danube” was something we needed to see. It’s a simple memorial on the bank of the Danube river where an estimated 20,000 people (mostly of Jewish heritage) were murdered by the nazis. The memorial is powerful in its simplicity as it features shoes of every type (men’s, women’s, children’s) facing the river in the place where they were shot and fell into the river.

    Communist Terror:

    Next we walked over to the “Terror Museum” which is the actual building where unspeakable acts of horror were committed first under nazi rule and then later under the communist regime. We learned very quickly that the happiness of being liberated from nazi rule quickly faded as life behind the Iron Curtain proved to be its own kind of terrible. For anyone that has gone to any of these types of historical places of great suffering, you know they make you sick just thinking about what took place and trying to wonder how people can do these things to other people. So sad.

    Time to Decompress:

    These were important things to see, but difficult and depressing, and left us in a heavy and somber mood. We needed to decompress and reflect so we headed to the Roman baths/thermal pools to chill out for a bit. To go in the mineral pool we needed to buy swim caps and looked pretty silly wearing them, but had some fun with it. We rounded out the night enjoying some traditional Hungarian folk dancing and music, drinking some wine and walking the streets at night one last time before heading out in the morning.

    Boiled Carp Soup, Pigsteak and the Signs of a Recent War:

    It was time to head out for Bosnia, but before setting out on our 8+ hour drive, we stopped by the main office of the organizers of these crazy adventure trips, The Travel Scientists, to say hi and see the office. Then we met our driver and it was off to Bosnia.

    Once reaching southern Hungary, we heard the local dish to try is a paprika-spiced fish soup, with local fish from the Danube, so of course we would try some! On reading the attempt at an English translation of the menu, we came to learn that it was boiled carp soup. I wasn’t too excited to learn this, because carp was a fish we never considered eating. But I’m all about trying the hinge that are important to the cultures of the places I am visiting. Just in case, we wanted to order some backup food, so I ordered some other fried fish dish, the type of fish was Zander. Steve wanted to order the Gypsy Roast and it was explained to him jubilantly that this was pigsteak!! A funny literal translation of a type of pork chop. The carp soup came and we forced some down, I struggled with thinking that it was big chunks of cut up carp, but I’ve eaten worse things, and I’m sure I will again!

    Back on the road through Croatia for a bit and into Bosnia. The landscape changed quickly in that we started seeing several destroyed and abandoned houses and our suspicions were confirmed that they belonged to people who fled or were killed during the Bosnian War of the 90s. We weren’t quite prepared to learn of how bad things were for the people living there during the war and the Siege of Sarajevo. More to come on that in the next post.
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